Obama and the Afghan narco-state
To understand why the war in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, is not going well for the United States and its NATO allies, take a look at two statistics.
One is Afghanistan’s ranking on an international index measuring corruption: 176 out of 180 countries. (Somalia is 180th). The other is Afghanistan’s position as the world’s Number 1 producer of illicit opium, the raw material for heroin.
The two statistics are inextricably linked and, a year ago, prompted Richard Holbrooke, the man President Barack Obama has just picked as special envoy for Afghanistan, to write: “Breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential or all else will fail.”
Holbrooke, who was not in government service at the time, took particular issue with the counter-narcotics strategy the Bush administration pursued in Afghanistan.
“The … program, which costs around $1 billion a year, may be the single most ineffective policy in the history of American foreign policy,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “It’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as criminal elements within Afghanistan.”
Exactly what the Obama administration intends to do about that, and how it might break the narco-state, has yet to be articulated. Sending more troops to fight a growing insurgency does not necessarily translate into progress towards dismantling the “narco-state,” eliminating corruption or cutting down on the opium production whose proceeds help finance the Taliban.
“WAR ON DRUGS”
The counter-narcotics strategy Holbrooke criticized so harshly centers on the eradication of drug crops, and has been the main weapon in the “war on drugs” the United States has been waging for decades around the world. That war failed to curb the production of illicit drugs and often proved counter-productive.
In Bolivia, for example, Evo Morales, a left-wing opponent of the United States, rose to political prominence and finally the presidency because he rallied a protest movement against U.S.-sponsored attempts to wipe out the cultivation of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine.
De-emphasizing eradication in Afghanistan would amount to an implicit admission of the failure of policies pursued since the 1970s by both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, described Afghanistan as “our greatest military challenge right now” but said there could be no purely military solution — not even with the additional 30,000 troops Obama plans to dispatch over the next 18 months.
So if there’s no purely military solution, what are the chances of progress on the political front? An unnamed White House official sounded hopeful this week that the United States could push Afghan President Hamid Karzai into extending government control beyond the capital and stepping up the fight against corruption.
It is the same Karzai who declared jihad (holy war) on the drugs trade in 2004, a few days after he was sworn in as Afghanistan’s first democratically elected leader. That holy war made no dent in opium production and corruption blossomed.
“Karzai was playing us like a fiddle,” Thomas Schweich, a former top anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan, wrote in the New York Times last summer. “The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends would get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.”
KARZAI THE PROBLEM
In other words, Karzai is not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. As to solutions: One novel idea on opium-and-corruption comes from James Nathan, a political science professor at Auburn University in Alabama and former State Department official. He argues in a forthcoming paper that the most efficient way to tackle the problem would be for the United States or NATO to buy up the entire Afghan opium crop.
“Purchasing the whole crop would take it away from the traffickers without cutting more than half the economy of Afghanistan,” Nathan said in an interview. “Such a purchase would directly confront Afghanistan’s most corrosive corruption. It would end the Taliban’s money stream.”
And the cost? By Nathan’s reckoning, between $2 billion and $2.5 billion a year, no pocket change but not a large sum compared with the around $200 billion the U.S. taxpayer has already paid for the war in Afghanistan. The idea may sound startling but its logic is not far from the farm subsidies paid to U.S. and European farmers.
On a more modest scale than Nathan’s buy-it-all idea, a European think tank, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), is lobbying for an alternative to traditional counter-narcotics policies dubbed Poppy for Medicine.
That involves granting international licenses to poppy farmers in Afghan villages, where the crop would be turned into opiate-based medicines such as morphine or codeine, and then shipped out to the legal market.
It would place Afghanistan alongside Turkey (where the United States helped to introduce a similar program in 1974), India and Australia as legal producers of opium. Could it work? When ICOS, formerly known as the Senlis Council, first came up with the idea, the State Department cold-shouldered it.
But that was before Obama, who promised to listen to new approaches. Both the buy-it-all and the licensing concepts deserve a hearing.
For previous columns by Bernd Debusmann, click here.